What's the Difference Between 'Whole Grain' and 'Refined Grain'?

whole grain vs. refined grain flour
The difference between whole and refined grains. Maximilian Stock Ltd./Getty Images

What does "whole grains" mean? What does "refined grains" mean? And what's the difference between the two?

As you might suspect, "whole" grains contain the original grain parts, as grown by the grain plant. "Refined" grains, meanwhile, are processed — refined — to remove some of those parts.

Those original grain parts contain fiber plus other nutrients, and they're good for you, which is why health experts urge people to include whole grains in their diets.

But whole grains and the flour produced from them don't make light, fluffy baked goods, so you can see why food product manufacturers might tend to avoid them, at least in some cases.

Parts of Grain Kernels

First, some background on grains, which include wheat, corn, rice, sorghum, barley, millet, rye and oats. What we think of as "grain" is actually the seed of the grain plant. When these seeds, or kernels, are harvested, they contain three parts:

  • the bran, which is the fibrous shell covering the entire kernel
  • the endosperm, the starchy part of the grain directly below the bran, and
  • the germ, or the part of the seed that can grow into another grain plant

The endosperm is the largest part of the kernel, and the germ is the smallest. All parts of the kernel contain nutrients, but the germ is the only part that contains healthy fats, and the bran contains the bulk of the kernel's fiber.

If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you need to avoid the three gluten grains — wheat, barley and rye, and possibly oats.

The other grains are fine for you, as long as they haven't been cross-contaminated with gluten grains.

Whole Grain vs. Refined Grain

Whole grain flour — from any type of grain, gluten-free or not — contains all three parts of the grain kernel, ground together. Refined grain flour contains only the endosperm — the process of refining flour removes the germ and the bran.

 Refining grain flour provides for a longer shelf life and a finer texture.

Whole grain flour has some real health advantages: it includes the fibrous bran and the nutrient-filled germ of the kernel, it also includes significantly more B vitamins, minerals and fiber than does refined flour.

In fact, manufacturers add vitamins and minerals (specifically, folic acid and iron) back into refined wheat flour to make it a healthier food. However, there's no way to add fiber to refined flour without destroying its fine texture (and potentially reducing its shelf life).

Gluten-Free Grain Flour: Mostly Refined

Although some gluten-free product manufacturers are using whole gluten-free grains to make healthier breads, the vast majority of gluten-free products on the market are made with refined gluten-free flour. For this reason, many people who follow the gluten-free diet don't get enough fiber, and some don't get enough B vitamins, either.

It's possible to find whole grain gluten-free flour (King Arthur Flour makes a certified gluten-free flour blend, for example), but most cup-for-cup gluten-free flours you'll see include refined grains (white rice is the most common ingredient).

Also, when you're talking about gluten-free whole grains, you should know that some of what we think of as "grains" are really different types of plants entirely. Quinoa and buckwheat fall into this category, and both can make healthy whole grain substitutes.

(Edited by Jane Anderson)

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